The call to make the world a better place is resonant throughout the Qur'an and remains the cornerstone of Islamic belief and practice. But why have efforts to change their own world, much less the world at large, by Muslims so often have failed or gone tragically awry? And how might Muslims in the 21st century live in ways that have integrity with their traditions and are more truly transformative?
The much hated "Islamophobia" term exists because the model of Islam we have shown to the world does not make sense to people; it has many things in it that have little to do with the "Word of God" and much to do with the word of man.
Presently, within Islam, like other religions, there are forms of religious dogma which are either driven by the State or its proxies in the name of Islam; these do not defend human rights and inhibit socio-economic development, setting a pattern that concentrates not on civic but on ethnic modes of representation
When we see many unjust acts and social anomalies acted-out in the name of Shari'ah or Islamic Law that entail stoning to death for the adulterers, death sentence for apostasy, illogical inheritance laws, disallowed adoption, ludicrous triple divorce to ruin peoples' marriages, and, on top of that, the Shari'ah-based blasphemy laws as recently reinstated by the Federal Shari'ah court of Pakistan, a clear and persistent danger to Islam is at hand. Sadly, which Muslim leader or which group of Muslims anywhere in the world has the will and capacity to challenge the existing interpretations regarding these and a host of other issues and demand a change?
Yet change we must.
Change for any group or society can only come about when we understand what makes them behave the way they do. So far, Muslims remain involved in generating unproductive and self-indulgent conversations that have very little to do with the challenges they face. For the past two centuries the trend in the Muslim world has been that of a politics fuelled by resentment and a sense of victimization, actuated by a strong will to power, and a propensity to demonize its opponents.
It should be, however, very clear that it is not Islam that needs to change but it is the Muslims whose understanding of the Qur'anic message needs urgent attention and change.
The phenomenal dumbing down of the Muslim masses, through the instruments of backward looking religious hierarchy, corrupted media and political culture, have left most of us incapable of comprehending the urgent relevance of an opportunity to re-engage creatively. Muslim societies seem to have exhausted their capacity to represent the aspirations of their faith, becoming hierarchical, bureaucratic and involved in an internecine struggle between different groups among them for power. There are movements claiming roots in Islam that are anti-intellectual and sectarian. These groups hate pluralism and engender enclaves of self-righteous piety that worship a vengeful and punishing God, not the most forgiving and the beneficent one of the Qur'an. There is such a great variety of associations - including cults and groups that preach violence. Do we place these associations within or outside civil society? And if outside, where do we put them?
The dissonance between Islam from its authentic source the Qur'an, and the Muslim societies at large that are supposed to be catered for, is the subject of much anguish among Muslims.
The dynamics of change within the Muslim societies remain severely impacted by the unresolved tensions between Religion and State. This remains a major source of confusion. The growing domination of religious forces in setting the contours of our socio-political and cultural discourse is no small measure due to state backing. The parameters of public discourse is set and controlled by the State through co-opted Ulama who have no choice but to articulate the States' position within the "Islamic framework". The education system, the media and "Islamic constitution' all are aimed at serving the need for perpetuating the ideology of the state.
Thus, the Muslim masses remain insulated from the idea that the state should not indulge in defining the boundaries of religion and should limit itself to the tasks of secular, worldly issues, leaving religious matters to private individuals while simultaneously guaranteeing freedom of religion to all.
Also, it appears that unless emancipated from the pre-given ends and stipulated roles of feudalism, the Muslim societies will not be able to develop responsive, independent, credible institutions that are able to give direction to Muslims. All of this has led to the privileging of all kinds of undesirable practices, and people in the name of Religion and State security or for the benefit of a privileged class holding on to control.
Hegel, a pre-eminent theologian, rightly points out in "The Philosophy of Right" that when individuals are motivated by self-interest and self-aggrandizement, "civil society affords a spectacle of extravagance and want as well as of the physical and ethical degeneration common to both".
An understanding needs to evolve within the Muslim societies that if Islam is an organizing principle for their society, then its laws must reflect the Qur'an's message of justice and compassion applicable to not only individual but also institutional development and growth; a model that plays out not only in all relationships, but also in our work and all spheres of social life. Muslims otherwise will remain contented and stagnant --- glorifying and idolizing their glorious past and doing nothing, as it seems now.
Muslims believe that the Qur'an is a book of guidance. Answers to the complex and evolving challenges of Modernity must be found by the use of intellect and understanding that the Qur'an demands of the human beings. The Qur'an holds each individual Muslim responsible for this.
Without fresh insights Muslim societies will not progress. Symbols drawn both from the religious and the ideological past can, if phrased properly, help us move from the past into the future --- not by rejecting, but by redefining inherited symbols. This will lead to how Islam might universalize its particular narrative into one applicable to the entire human race.
The great issues of the day, such as the nature of the good society, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, the practices of politics and government, how to live together peacefully through the reconciliation of individual autonomy with collective aspirations, balancing freedom and its boundaries, marrying pluralism with conformity so that complex societies can function with both efficiency and justice, can only be addressed with fresh approaches and insights, and not just by remaining adherent to the rigid framework of handed-down wisdom.
The ball is in the Muslims' court. Will they respond?
Dr. Nazir Khaja is Chairman of Islamic Information Service and Founder, Council of Pakistan-American Affairs. [email protected]
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